Still, the picture of Stern as a servile purveyor of neoclassicism to the rich is a caricature. At a recent benefit for the nonprofit developer Common Ground, which builds housing for low-income residents, Stern accepted an award and wryly introduced himself by saying, “Most of you probably know me best as the architect of some of the least affordable homes in New York.” But as he points out in Paradise Planned, he was working on ideas for low-income housing in Brownsville as early as 1976. He has been involved in public planning long enough that no idea seems new to him: During the Lindsay administration, when he was a freshly minted graduate of Columbia and Yale, he was part of a group that advocated filling in some of the underused open space in New York’s housing projects with additional buildings—an idea that foundered, recently reappeared in a different guise, and has once again been shot down but that remains supremely rational.
More than a decade ago, he took over a program in which first-year graduate students at Yale help design single-family homes for low-income families in New Haven. More recently, his firm designed Cedarwoods, Common Ground’s 60-unit residential building in Willimantic, Connecticut. The income gulf between the residents of his Central Park West and Willimantic buildings is vast, a reflection of the yawning inequities in the country as a whole, and the budgets are commensurately far apart. But Stern’s goal as an architect remains the same: to design a building that is handsome, respectful, of very high quality, and pleasing to the people who live there. A remarkably democratic attitude runs through his writings and his practice: design that nonexperts appreciate is better than design they hate, and the more they appreciate it the better it is. In the upper reaches of the architectural profession, that is the minority view.
“It’s nice to do buildings that people like,” Stern says, with an impish smile. “I’m not sure all my colleagues get to enjoy that.”